F-150’s Plastic Underbody Fuel Tank Shield Spells Trouble

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

As a general rule, I don’t like to presume that a plastic part is automatically inferior to a similar part made from metal. There are plenty of examples of plastic and/or composite parts (from intake manifolds to frame cross-members) being used effectively. However, Ford might have screwed up when they replaced the F-150’s steel fuel tank shield (aka fuel tank skid plate) with plastic.

This past week, a Florida jury awarded $4 million to a plaintiff who sued Ford for basically going cheap on the fuel tank shield (aka skid plate). From Yahoo News:

The lengthy three week trial…argued that Ford’s decision to replace a metal safety skid plate with a plastic version, compromised the integrity of the fuel safety system, making it vulnerable to punctures and cuts from road debris and hazards.

On July 18, 2008, Michelle Brannen was the passenger in a Ford F-150 traveling on SW 5th Avenue in Union County, Fla. The driver lost control of the vehicle, causing the truck to leave the roadway and run over a stop sign post. As the F-150 ran over the post, [the skid plate] fractured in two and punctured the unprotected fuel tank, leading to a fuel fed fire. Michelle Brannen managed to survive, but suffered catastrophic burns.

To my knowledge, Ford is not the only company to use plastic/composite skid plates. Heavy-duty plastic is impact resistant, light weight, slides more easily over obstacles, and is relatively inexpensive to replace. While it’s not as sturdy as steel, it’s not like it can fail easily. It would take quite a bit of force to snap it in two.

F150 fuel tank skid plate

The fuel tank skid plate used on newer F-150s, which seems to be made from heavy-duty plastic.

What’s more, no part can be designed for every possible contingency. There’s no guarantee that this particular story would have a different ending if steel had been used instead of plastic.

Still, Ford replaced a steel part with a plastic one…and they did so on a product that claims to be “Built Ford Tough.” It’s no surprise that the jury had sympathy for Ms. Brannen – who would expect that the F-150 would rely on plastic parts for such a critical purpose? A quick perusal of F-150 owner forums shows that these skid plates are regarded as “flimsy” and “super weak” by owners.

While I don’t think it’s wise to say Ford made a design mistake here (I’m pretty certain that Toyota uses plastic skid plates, and they don’t usually make bad design choices), I will say that all automakers should take another look at fuel tank protection. From this lawsuit to NHTSA’s requested (and rebuffed) Jeep fuel tank recall, it’s clear that consumers think automakers aren’t doing enough. I’m not sure I disagree.

Filed Under: Auto News


RSSComments (6)

Leave a Reply | Trackback URL

  1. Mickey says:

    I didn’t see any metal skid plate around my tank. I really didn’t see a plastic one either. I also didn’t pay attention to it when I did my inspection underneath this past Friday when I had my truck on a lift for oil change & rotate tires.

  2. LJC says:

    Well, when I hear “skid plate” I envision metal. When I hear “cover”, I envision plastic.

    It would be good to know if the F150 had an “off road” package.

    • Tim Esterdahl says:


      I think it was a stock F-150 not the Raptor. Frankly, plastic or metal, I think the driver/passenger has a reasonable assumption that the truck wouldn’t burst into flames.


  3. Daniel Ricci says:

    My buddy and I have FJ Cruisers and they have plastic covers over the gas tank. I think it is safe to assume they’ve seen more offroad use than a stock F150. It’s really not too big of a deal and they’re holding up nicely. I assume that the tank is tucked up between the frame rails, not hanging down in the rear like my cherokee (which I did get a metal skid for).

  4. I was the one to sue Ford.
    I don’t think there are many people who go to a dealership to purchase a vehicle ever think to ask if there fuel system is safe we all no that these auto manufacture do crash test to make sure t vehicle s are safe for all consumer but on this f150 they did many crash test but not one did they do under the f150 to make sure the plastic skid plate could be safe enough for consumers. It shouldn’t take someone dying or someone getting burned severely an losing there legs.

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 Google+ 0 Email -- 0 Flares ×